Herriman • Nick Rimando retired from Major League Soccer as the unequivocal best goalkeeper to ever play. He played 20 years in the league and finished with the record in wins, shutouts, saves, games played and minutes.
He spent 13 of those years with Real Salt Lake, where many say he cemented his legacy. But now that he’s gone, there’s a vacant position at goalkeeper that hasn’t been up for grabs since Rimando joined the Claret and Cobalt.
Heading into the 2020 season, three players are currently battling for Rimando’s own stomping grounds between the posts — David Ochoa, Andrew Putna and Zac MacMath. RSL coaches say the position is wide open.
“It’s not going to be an easy decision,” RSL goalkeeper coach Todd Hoffard told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The three keepers are at different points of their careers. Ochoa, a rookie last season, hasn’t played in a single MLS game, but just won a United Soccer League Championship title with the Real Monarchs. Putna has mostly USL experience as well, but started five games last season, including a stretch of four straight when Rimando was out with a left knee injury.
Then there’s MacMath, a nine-year MLS veteran. RSL acquired him last month, and he said during the club’s annual media day that he requested a trade from his former team, the Vancouver Whitecaps, during the offseason.
Each of them understand the void left by a player of Rimando’s stature. Each of them understand that it’s impossible to replace him, so to speak. But they’re all going to try to make the position their own if they get it. And that’s exactly what coach Freddy Juarez wants.
“We’re hoping that those three not quite replace Nick, [but] in their own way will put their stamp on it,” Juarez said. “We think they have some qualities that are going to lead us in the right way.”
MacMath spoke most specifically about what it’s like for him joining the team and fighting for the position left open by Rimando’s retirement.
“I think it’s a great challenge for me personally,” MacMath said. “It’s kind of a challenge to make this spot, make this team my own legacy and start a new legacy here of being one of the teams with one of the best goalkeepers in the league.”
It would appear that because MacMath has the most experience of the three, he would be the early frontrunner for the starting role. But Juarez and Hoffard made it clear that they weren’t using that as a determining factor.
MacMath said he’s approaching the goalkeeper opening as if it’s his to have. He also said he was interested in joining Salt Lake because of the goalkeeping scenario, given that was there no clear No. 1 option.
But RSL technically does have a No. 1 option in Ochoa, who had 69 and four shutouts for the Monarchs in 2019. He said winning the USL title gave him confidence and proved that he can perform at a high level, despite his youth.
Juarez described Ochoa’s ceiling as “super high,” and Hoffard thinks the competition at keeper could be instrumental for to the homegrown player’s career.
“Somebody like him hasn’t had that competition,” Hoffard said of Ochoa. “He’s never been given an opportunity, but he’s never had to look over his shoulder and say, ‘Oh man if I don’t perform today, I could be out of a job.’ He’s never really been in that situation. So for him and his growth and his development, I think it’s huge for him.”
Putna is trying to build on last season. He worked his way up from the Monarchs and did a serviceable job in Rimando’s absence last season, and felt he did an “OK” job. But he is supportive of whatever the outcome of the competition is.
“It’s definitely not going to be easy for anyone,” Putna said. “But I think we’re all willing to put in the work and whoever comes out on top after preseason is going to do a good job.”
Hoffard said while the team is in no way trying to replace Rimando, all three keepers have certain attributes that the RSL legend had. Hoffard said Rimando’s abilities with his feet allowed the team to feel comfortable playing back to him. At times, he said, Rimando even started the attack.
Having keepers who can do those things is important because it allows the club to play its style of soccer.
“We don’t want to alter our style of play from a tactical standpoint just because of the goalkeeper,” Hoffard said. “We want to kind of plug and play, so it’s going to be pretty similar. And I think with our three goalkeepers, we can.”
RSL’S GOALKEEPING CANDIDATES
Hometown: Oxnard, Calif.
Accomplishments: Won the 2019 USL Championship title. Member of the U-20 U.S. Men’s National Team that qualified for the U-20 FIFA World Cup
Hometown: Lemont, Illinois
Accomplishments: Started six games in his MLS in just two seasons as a reserve
Hometown: St. Petersburg, Flor.
Accomplishments: Started 140 of 142 games in nine MLS seasons